The Exaltation of the Cross and the Restoration of Identity

The bronze serpent mounted on a pole in the Book of Numbers (21:9) is one of the Old Testament types cited by Jesus himself: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up.” (Jn 3:14)

The original figure is rather startling, and not what you would expect of a people who do not carve images. In the midst of a plague of saraph serpents whose bites were killing many, God answers his people’s prayers by instructing Moses to fashion and lift up the bronze serpent so that those who were bitten could look upon it and be healed. The paradox of God’s response is that an elevated serpent of bronze would seem to indicate the victory of death, as if the deadly serpents are being somehow exalted. Yet it is the very opposite: this elevated image of death is actually life-giving, and exalts his fallen people.

John, in whose Gospel Jesus recalls the bronze serpent, will witness to this paradoxical victory of the Cross in his account of the Passion. John is also the evangelist who recounts the words of Jesus which seem to prophesy this victory: “This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father.” (Jn 10:17–18)

While suffering and victory are present in all of the Passion accounts, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, who include Jesus’ agony at Gethsemane, seem to emphasize the suffering of Jesus. John seems to highlight his victory, which is somehow never obscured by his suffering. Accordingly, the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are rotated in the cycle of readings on Passion Sunday, while John’s is always the account that we read and contemplate on Good Friday.

John’s Passion account, which comes from the tradition of the beloved disciple who stayed close to Jesus throughout, reveals the authority of Jesus to have been uncompromised by his arrest, his interrogation, his suffering and his crucifixion.

Jesus is described as “knowing everything that was going to happen to him.” (18:4) And he turns every interrogation around to question his interrogators. He interrogates the soldiers who have intruded into the garden where he brings his disciples, and then commands these armed men to let his disciples go. When Annas questions Jesus about his doctrine, the authoritative prisoner responds, “Why ask me? Ask those who heard me what I said to them. They know what I said.” (18:21) When a guard strikes Jesus because of his true and authoritative response and asks him, “Is this the way you answer the high priest?” (18:22) Jesus interrogates the guard: “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong, but if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” (18:23) Pilate himself seems to be taken aback by Jesus after he asks if he is the King of the Jews and Jesus immediately asks him, “Do you say this on your own or have others told you about me?” (18:34) Finally, when Jesus dies on the cross to he was lifted, John tells us that “he handed over his spirit.” (19:30) This was not a passive death, but the Son of Man who has been lifted up, and lays his life down out of love for his disciples, and will take it up again as the culmination of his victory.

Where could such authority come from? It can only come from the Source of all authority, Authority and Love Himself: Jesus’ authority comes from the Father who loves him. He speaks of the Father’s loving will before and after he speaks of his own power to lay down his life and take it up again. Jesus’ victory flows from his identity as the Beloved Son. Our liturgy tells us that the Transfiguration, in which the Father’s voice identifies Jesus as the Beloved Son, was to prepare Peter, James, and John for the suffering to come, perhaps to assure them that neither suffering nor even death could compromise the victory of the Father’s love.

In a posthumously published book, Cry of the Heart, Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete writes that the cross is not a merely a judicial payment of an external debt, but that the cross has to do with our very identity. The victory of the Cross is to restore our very identity as beloved daughters and sons:

My concern is that we tend to see the event of the cross and its application to us in an external way, as merely a judicial payment of a debt that somehow or other we don’t have to pay . . . But the mystery of the cross is much deeper than this: there is a link between us and Christ from the very beginning of our existence . . . What is happening on the cross is an affirmation of the identification of Christ and humanity in the face of sin and death . . . Therefore, no amount of sin and suffering can ever diminish the infinite dignity of the human person. The human person is created to be an expression, an image of God the Father’s eternal Son. The love between the Father and the Son is to be extended to this creature we know as the human person.1

Albacete asserts that “sin rejects God not as creator, but as father,” and that “sin and its consequences can only be overcome by the affirmation that the Son’s identity, and ours in him, is stronger than sin and its consequences of suffering and death.”2

Jesus’ victory, evident throughout his passion as recounted in John, is rooted in his identity as the Beloved Son; and he calls us to be rooted in this identity, and thus to be sharers in his victory.

Recall the temptation in the desert, when the devil tempts Jesus to doubt his Father: “if you are the Son of God,” but Jesus has the victory. Recall the temptation in the garden, which Jesus vanquishes by affirming in his prayer to the Father, “not my will but yours be done,” and thus inaugurates, or continues, his victory march.

On the cross, Jesus reveals that sin cannot obstruct God’s Fatherhood.

On the cross, Jesus restores our identity as beloved sons and daughters.

Where do we see the triumph of the cross happening today?

As a Director of Pastoral Formation, I see it in our seminarians’ theological reflections, when in their ministerial assignments they are amazed that someone in a hospital bed or prison cell is encouraged, and perhaps even experiences a kind of healing, through a simple act of attentive and charitable listening. Perhaps through that seminarian, the sufferer glimpses and experiences his or her identity as a beloved son or daughter.

I have seen it in the foundational joy of our pastoral supervisors in hospitals, rehab centers, correctional facilities, and hospices, who witness that the Father’s desire to extend his love for His Son to us is not conquered by suffering, sin or even death.

As a priest, I have witnessed it as I hear confessions, especially in those cases when a penitent’s awe-filled gratitude witnesses that they have not merely gained a “clean slate” but a restored identity.

In Dives in Misericordia, St. John Paull II wrote, “The cross is like a touch of eternal love upon the most painful wounds of man’s earthly existence.”3 It is not merely judicial and external, but a profound and foundational victory that heals us at the very root of our identity.

In our fallen earthly existence, in the midst of painful wounds and the evil of sin, may we never despair of Christ’s victory that can reveal itself, not just in the final resurrection, but here and now. The Son of Man has been lifted up, so that we may be lifted up.

We adore You, O Christ and we praise you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

  1. Lorenzo Albacete, Cry of the Heart: On the Meaning of Suffering (Seattle, WA: Slant Books), 55–56.
  2. Albacete, Cry of the Heart, 58.
  3. John Paul II, Dives in Misericordia, 8.
Fr. Richard Veras About Fr. Richard Veras

Father Richard Veras is Director of Pastoral Formation and Professor of Homiletics at Saint Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York. He has been the Chaplain of the ecclesial lay movement Communion and Liberation in the Archdiocese of New York since 1999. He is a regular contributor to Magnificat magazine and is the author of three books, his latest being The Word Made Flesh: Foreshadowed, Fulfilled, Forever (MAGNIFICAT).


  1. Avatar Peter Rosario says:

    I often found myself comparing the elevation of the bronze serpent in Numbers 21:9 to the story of the golden calf described in Exodus chapter 21. Does the bronze serpent, just like the golden calf, represent idolatry? I think not for two reasons. Firstly, God instructed Moses to fashion the serpent and place it on a pole. Secondly, the Israelites were to merely look at the serpent and not worship or sacrifice to it as we find them doing with the golden calf (Exodus 32:8). Fr. Veras reminds us of the need to only venerate the holy cross so as to recognize God’s given love and dignity for all of humanity.

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